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In his gripping, behind-the-scenes account, journalist William Saletan reveals exactly how, thirty years after Roe v. Wade, "pro-choice" conservatives have won the abortion war. Having successfully turned abortion into a privacy issue, conservatives now prevail on issues ranging from abortion's legality and parental notification to Medicaid, rape, and cloning; consequently, reproductive autonomy is now becoming inaccessible to the young and the poor. This eye-opening exposé tells how abortion rights activists—people who desired social change, women's equality, and broader access to health care—have had their message co-opted in a culture of privacy and limited government. Bearing Right is also a story about the essentially conservative character of the United States today.
Saletan tells how, beginning in Arkansas in 1986 during the administration of Governor Bill Clinton, the National Abortion Rights Action League repackaged the abortion issue to give it broader appeal to conservatives. Pro-choice conservatives adopted this new rhetoric and made the abortion issue their own. Saletan takes us through the key events in the ensuing story—the fight over the nomination of Judge Robert Bork, the election of Governor Doug Wilder in Virginia, the convergence of the Bush and Clinton positions on abortion in 1992, and much more—right up to the present day.
This book is a crucial lesson in how politicians and interest groups can change the way we vote, not by telling us facts or lies, but by reshaping the way we think—in part through mass marketing. Today, the abortion rights movement must ask itself what it has won and what it is fighting for. This book is sure to play a role in answering that question.
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS SEPTEMBER 29, 1986
The room was half dark when the visitors took their seats. Before them, curtains framed a wall of glass. Beyond the wall, an identical row of panes loomed like an optical illusion. Staring into the glass, the visitors beheld their own faint reflections, the faces of women who had marched for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s and for sexual equality in the 1970s. They were here to survey what they regarded as the next battleground in the fight for freedom.
The outlook was bleak. In Washington, President Ronald Reagan and Republican senators were in their sixth year of power. Three days earlier, William Rehnquist, armed with fresh reinforcements in his campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade, had been sworn in as chief justice of the United States. In little more than a month, voters in four states would decide whether to ban public funding of abortions for poor women. Among these four battlefronts, the weakest position for pro-choice forces, the line most difficult to hold, was here in Arkansas. The job of the women in this room, against Reagan's will and without Governor Bill Clinton's help, was to hold that line.
Peering through the double glass, the women discerned the contours of another room beyond it. Their own reflected images obscured the details of that room. From the opposite direction, the glass functioned as a mirror, rendering the women invisible to anyone on the other side. No sound breached the barrier between the chambers.
A technician twisted two dials on the wall behind the women, extinguishing the lights above them. The reflections in the glass vanished. Through the darkness, they beheld clearly the contents of the illuminated room. A dozen chairs surrounded a rectangular table. Above the table hung a microphone, through which sound could pass into the viewing chamber.
Through a doorway concealed from view, a line of women, and later a line of men, entered the illuminated room and filled its chairs. These miniature assemblies-"focus groups," in the parlance of the polling industry-had been culled from the hundreds of thousands of voters who would decide whether to amend the Arkansas constitution to ban abortion subsidies. They didn't think all abortions should be outlawed, but they were inclined to support the amendment.
Each of the women watching from the darkness was here to absorb a hard lesson. She would have to win over these voters. She would have to respect their values and accommodate their prejudices. She would have to perceive them clearly, without projecting her beliefs onto them. She would have to see what was beyond the glass, past the illusory reflection of herself.
The man seated at the near end of the table, with his back to the viewing chamber, was Harrison Hickman, the pollster who had arranged this encounter. He led each of the focus groups through a discussion. In the first session, the women in the illuminated room agreed among themselves that taxpayers shouldn't subsidize abortions. It took Hickman three-quarters of an hour to find a question that gave them pause. What would you do, he asked them, if one of your own daughters were impregnated as a result of rape? In that case, they conceded, abortion might be acceptable. They were disturbed to hear that the amendment might deny them that option.
After the women left, Hickman brought in the group of men. They, too, thought abortion should be reserved for rape victims. But unlike the women, the men didn't address the issue in personal terms. They were more outraged by the general idea of government interference in family life. Several men nodded as one member of the group asserted, "We live in the U S of A and are supposed to have freedom of choice."
The women watching from behind the glass remembered what freedom of choice had meant to Arkansans not long ago. On September 23, 1957, before the eyes of a rapt nation, 1,000 segregationists had mobbed Little Rock's all-white Central High School, forcing nine black children to abandon their attempt to attend classes there. The black students hadn't returned until President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched 1,200 army paratroopers to protect them.
Which legion was freedom's enemy that day-the segregationists or the soldiers? Most southerners said it was the soldiers. Arkansas governor Orval Faubus accused the federal government of trampling "individual rights" and "the rights of a sovereign state." South Carolina's governor and senior U.S. senator denounced the government's assault on white citizens' "personal and property rights," especially its "invasion of their homes." Georgia's governor vowed never to "surrender our liberty and our freedom."
In the view of liberals, the freedom at stake was that of the nine black students. The government might deny the students the right to enroll at Central High School, as Faubus had done two weeks before the mob arrived. But it might also guarantee that right, as Eisenhower did in the end. In theory, the Little Rock School Board had declared the students free to enroll at their leisure. But in practice, they couldn't have exercised that freedom without government intervention. As one white student put it, "If they don't have guards with them niggers, they're going to get murdered."
Conservatives saw it differently. For them, the freedom at stake was that of white parents. The government was denying those parents the right to direct their children's education. "We're not trying to tell others what to do," the vice president of the local Mothers League insisted. "That's what we dislike-people trying to tell us what to do about our own schools." To protect white families from government intrusion, segregationists proposed, in the wake of Eisenhower's invasion, to privatize the public schools. And to avoid subsidizing a practice they despised, they sought to ban the spending of state tax money on integrated schools.
Three decades later, a few miles from the scene of that confrontation, the women behind the glass perceived the same resistance. In the illuminated chamber, men decried government intrusion in their affairs, and women bristled at laws that in the name of universal justice would, as they saw it, allow their daughters to be defiled. Such entrenched convictions-suspicion of government, love of parental sovereignty, faith in easy distinctions between angels and animals-would probably strengthen the campaign against public funding of abortion, just as they had strengthened the campaign against public funding of integration.
But perhaps the effect could be reversed. Perhaps these attitudes about government, family, and good breeding could be turned against prolifers. Perhaps, one of the women mused in the dark, people who didn't like the government messing with their guns or schools wouldn't like it messing with their pregnancies. The same idea dawned on another of the women as she studied the strangers in the illuminated chamber. Let's be them. How easy it would be to adapt the rhetoric of abortion rights to the mind-set of these voters. How easy to adopt their logic and their language. How easy to pass from this side of the glass to the other.
And how hard to come back.
The battle of Arkansas unfolded little more than a decade after Roe v. Wade, when advocates of legal abortion, under attack throughout the country, were realizing that the courts wouldn't protect them. They would have to defend their cause in the electoral arena, not with the subtleties of law, but with the blunt weapons of politics. This was quite a challenge, since abortion rights had never been politically secured. Before 1973 only four states had legalized abortion outright. The Supreme Court's decisions in Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, created overnight a nationwide regime of abortion rights for which no consensus had been built.
Pro-lifers spent the next decade exploiting that weakness. Their principal target was public financing of abortions for poor women. They convinced lawmakers in many states to stop covering abortions under state Medicaid programs. In 1976 Congress passed the Hyde amendment, essentially abolishing federal Medicaid coverage of abortions. In 1977 and 1980 the Supreme Court refused to block these rollbacks.
by 1984 two-thirds of the states had banned or sharply restricted the use of their funds for abortions. Of those that still subsidized abortions, one-third did so only because courts had ruled that their state constitutions required it. Even then, pro-lifers held the ultimate trump card. Most voters opposed government financing of abortions. If they engraved that judgment in their state's constitution, even the state's highest court would have to give way.
With that in mind, pro-lifers launched several ballot measure campaigns against abortion funding. Arkansas hadn't paid for abortions since 1977, but in 1984 pro-life strategists decided to go a step further. They offered Arkansas voters a state constitutional amendment against abortion funding, onto which they piggybacked a declaration of the rights of the unborn. The amendment's funding clause said, "No public funds of this state shall be used directly or indirectly to pay for all or any part of the expenses of performing or inducing an abortion," except to save the woman's life. The unborn-rights clause said, "It is the public policy of the state of Arkansas to promote the health, safety and welfare of every unborn child from conception until birth."
Until 1984 pro-choice lobbyists in Arkansas had worked backstage in the legislature, relying on personal relationships to quash pro-life forays. The ballot measure, Amendment 65, rendered that strategy moot. Defenders of abortion rights could no longer rely on back rooms or courtrooms. They would have to right this battle in the open.
Planned Parenthood's New York office dispatched one of its top political strategists, Lydia Neumann, to Little Rock to scout the terrain. In an internal report, she observed that in other states liberal and feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the National Women's Political Caucus were "well respected." In Arkansas, however, pro-choice activists were "viewed as espousing an agenda considerably more liberal than that of the community at large." To win the election, Neumann wrote, they would have "to shift people's perception away from the notion that pro-choice was necessarily a radical position to hold." They would have to mute their feminism and marshal "other more conservative voices" for abortion rights.
Two weeks before the election, as polls showed Amendment 65 heading for a landslide victory, pro-choice activists got a reprieve. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck the proposal from the ballot on the grounds that its title, "The Unborn Child Amendment," was misleading. One last time, the ACLU and the courts had rescued abortion rights from a showdown with the electorate. But everyone knew the amendment would return to the ballot in 1986. Its supporters would have to change only its title. Its opponents would have to change the minds of hundreds of thousands of voters.
In their fight against Amendment 65, pro-choicers were up against more than the pro-life lobby. A simultaneous referendum on a similar amendment in Colorado showed why. The strategist in charge of the campaign for the Colorado amendment recognized that pro-lifers weren't a voting majority. They needed help from anti-tax voters, many of whom viewed abortion as a private matter. With that in mind, newspaper ads for the amendment told voters that according to the U.S. Supreme Court, "the private right to an abortion does not mean taxpayers must pay for it." A campaign flyer for the amendment asked:
Why should any taxpayer be forced to pay the bill for those who decide to have an abortion at public expense? This is an unfair burden imposed on Coloradans who each year see their taxes grow higher and higher. Those who choose to have an abortion should accept the personal responsibility of paying for it. They have no right to expect taxpayers to foot the bill for a personal, private decision.
After the amendment passed, Colorado's leading pollster concluded, "The winning percentage had to do with money, not abortion." The amendment, by his estimate, had "probably picked up the support of 15-20 percent of the voters who don't care about abortion but are against public expenditures no matter what." Observing that similar majorities could be assembled elsewhere, Planned Parenthood predicted that pro-life groups in other states would try to duplicate the Colorado campaign.
A national poll commissioned in 1984 by Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and other pro-choice organizations taught the same lesson. In that survey, pollster Tubby Harrison found that many voters who opposed banning abortion also opposed paying for it. These two positions struck pro-choice activists as contradictory, but in fact they were connected.
Philosophically, the anti-ban and anti-funding positions followed from the principle of minimal government involvement in private life. The poll showed that people made this connection spontaneously. "The reasoning used (again on an unprompted basis) most often by opponents of federal funding," Harrison wrote, "is that abortion is a private matter that the government should stay out of-confirming the two-edged nature of this argument."
Politically, the anti-ban and anti-funding positions were linked by hostility to taxes and welfare. When interviewers introduced the word welfare into the conversation, the margin of opposition to abortion subsidies doubled. As Harrison noted, "The public opposes the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for poor women by 55% to 42%, with that margin growing to 62% to 36% when the words 'women on welfare' are substituted for 'poor women.' ... [I]n the case of 'poor women,' strong opposition outweighs strong support by a little over 2 to 1; in the instance of 'welfare women,' the margin leaps to slightly more than 4 to 1."
Economic rather than moral concerns seemed to account for this reaction. When the question was rephrased, with "poor women" replaced by "women on welfare," the percentage of respondents citing moral reasons for their opposition to abortion subsidies dropped by one-fourth. Meanwhile, the percentage who rejected these subsidies on the grounds that they imposed "a burden on taxpayers" or that if the "government pays, more people will want abortions" more than doubled. Harrison concluded that "opposition to federal funding of abortions for women on welfare seems to be a mixture of opposition to abortion and opposition to government spending."
Excerpted from BEARING RIGHT by WILLIAM SALETAN Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. A Place Called Hope
2. Privacy and Prejudice
3. Who Decided
4. The New Mainstream
6. Middle Ground
7. Victims and Villains
8. The Right to Choose Life
9. The Era of Big Government
10. Fatal Position